Carroll Shelby Gets His Due
Text and Photos by Matt Emery
A legend is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as, “A story coming down from the past; a person or thing that inspires legends.”
On March 26-28, 2010, the Legends of Riverside II Film Festival and Legends Gala took place at the Riverside International Automotive Museum in Riverside, California. This year’s honoree was racer, team owner, car builder and certifiable legend, Carroll Shelby. Surrounded by friends, racers and former competitors, Shelby held court, answering questions about his winning days at Le Mans, SCCA and designing and building his iconic Cobra cars.
Shelby was born in Leesburg, Texas, on January 11, 1923, was a flying instructor during WWII, and his first race was actually a drag race behind the wheel of a Ford V-8 flathead-equipped hot rod. It was only a few months later, in 1952, that Shelby won his first road race and only two years later, in 1954, Shelby was in Europe and behind the wheel of a Aston Martin team car at Le Mans. In 1957, Shelby raced for the first time at Riverside where, after spinning out in the first turn, he proceeded to pass the entire field on his way to winning the 100-mile event. Shelby ended his driving career in 1960 with the USAC driving championship.
In 1961, Shelby entered into partnership with AC Cars of Ditton, England. AC had lost its engine source, and Shelby figured that the new Ford 260-ci V-8 HiPo engine would work just fine. He also claims that he came up with the name Cobra in his sleep, and only woke up long enough to jot the name down on a handy piece of paper before he went back to sleep. “Next morning when I looked at the name ‘Cobra’” says Shelby, “I knew it was right.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
This event was just as good as last year’s, which honored hometown hero, Dan Gurney. Being surrounded by Riverside memorabilia, race cars and others who love racing is a great way to spend a weekend. The “Legends” weekend included film screenings, bench racing sessions with old friends, and reminiscing about racing in general and Riverside Raceway, in particular.
For those who don’t know, Riverside International Raceway was the one of the greatest road course tracks ever built, and was where everyone raced. From 1957 to 1988, RIR hosted races such as Formula One Grand Prix, NASCAR, Can-Am, USAC, IMSA, IROC, CART and even the Mickey Thompson Off Road Championships. The first IROC race was run at Riverside, which pitted racers from a wide variety of disciplines to a race on a track that virtually everybody knew, and half-mile drag races were also run there for a time. RIR is sometimes known as “The House That Gurney Built,” due to its being the then Riverside residents’ home track. It was also where Gurney won an awful lot of races, and where RIR rode the cusp of sports car racing as it was hitting its stride in the 1960s.
Drivers ranging from Mario Andretti, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Bob Bondurant to Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Parnelli Jones made history there. It was a great place to be when the engines wound up and many owe a lot to the hot, dusty acreage that allowed everyone from club racers to world class names to compete on a such a historic facility. Yours truly is proud and now feels very lucky to have had the experience of racing off-road motorcycles there a few times in the 1980s. Then, in their infinite wisdom, the city council of Moreno Valley, California, decided that the world needed yet another shopping mall instead of a world famous racetrack, and in 1988, the Riverside International Raceway was gone.
Thankfully, due to the diligent crew at the Riverside International Automotive Museum, it’s a long way from forgotten. For those who raced at Riverside, saw an event there or just love history, go to this museum and check out all of the cool cars and memorabilia. The racing scene in California back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s was as big as it got anywhere, and places like Riverside, with its ability to host virtually every type of racing there was, was at the heart of it all.
The Riverside International Automotive Museum
815 Marlborough Ave. Unit 200
Riverside, CA 92507